Yom Kippur and the Lesson of the Two Goats


Rabbi Ari Enkin

By Rabbi Ari Enkin, Rabbinic Director, United with Israel

Our sages teach that even a desire to move in the right direction is full of merit, even if it does not materialize as we first thought.

The climax of the Yom Kippur service in the Holy Temple was the sacrifice of the two goats. The Kohen Gadol, High Priest, would take two goats, and by means of a lottery designate one for God and one for “Azazel.”

There are many interpretations as to what “Azazel” means, but we’ll go with the interpretation that it is the name of the place where the goat was taken. The former was considered to be a sin-offering and was offered on the altar, while the latter was a national atonement offering that was sent to the wilderness outside of Jerusalem to be pushed off a cliff and tumble to its death. Before sending away the Azazel goat, the Kohen Gadol would place both his hands on its head, and confess the sins of the Jewish people. It is interesting to note that these two goats had to be nearly identical and be equal in value.

The commentaries are full of lessons that we can learn from this service.

One goat is slaughtered in a holy place. Its blood is then sprinkled in the Holy of Holies. It is an exalted sight and service. The second goat is led away from the scene alive. It’s on its way to Azazel. What might the goat be thinking about at this time? Perhaps the goat is excited by the fact that he is alive, while his old buddy is now on the altar. Perhaps he feels lucky. He now thinks that he’s going to live a long life in some luscious green field somewhere.

Eventually the goat does arrive in a luscious green wilderness, he thinks he’s got it made. He’s free. He prepares for retirement. All-you-can-eat grass. But he is taken to a cliff. He thinks he is being led there for a VIP view of the valley below. Little does he know that in a matter of minutes he will be tumbling down the mountainside being ripped apart by the sharp stones. If he knew the truth, he would certainly think that it was the first goat that got the better ‘deal’.

We are taught that these goats offer us a lesson in life. We all have two possible options on how to live our lives. One is the path of God and Torah. The other is the path of “freedom” and “pleasure.” Unfortunately, most people don’t realize that it is the first path that has all the pleasure we seek in life. The path of God and Torah is full of meaning, celebration, and growth. The first path may seem difficult, but, at the end of the day, even a goat realizes that it is the better “deal.” The “freedom” usually comes with all kinds of uncomfortable endings.

We should take the time on Yom Kippur to ponder the service of the goats. The second path might look attractive. It might seem like eternal Club Med. But it’s not. Parties quickly end, with nothing meaningful to take from them. Let us sanctify ourselves for the “Holy of Holies.”

Our sages teach that even a desire to move in the right direction is full of merit, even if it does not materialize as we first thought. With efforts like this, we can be sure that we will be sealed for a blessed new year!

Source: United with Israel